Razi Masood joined a caravan of Muslim friends heading to a small meat processor in rural Minnesota last weekend, where they participated in a religious ritual repeated each year by Muslims across the globe.

They selected goats from a pen at the meat processor, helped carry them to a butcher table, said a prayer, and took part in an Islamic tradition that honors the prophet Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son for God — who allowed him to sacrifice a lamb instead.

Such goats and lambs made their way to dinner tables across Minnesota during Eid al-Adha, one of the most sacred holidays in the Muslim faith. The three-day festival, which ended Tuesday, has created lasting bridges between Minnesota agriculture and the state's Muslim faithful whose desire for halal meat prepared by Islamic law is both religiously grounded and growing.

"We really appreciate the opportunity to have fresh meat from Minnesota farmers," said Masood, a computer programmer from Blaine. "And without this, we would never go to these rural places, see farms or interact with people. People are friendly. They talk to you."

Paul Smith, the owner of Geneva Meats, where Masood's group was headed, was overseeing the arrival of nearly 300 Muslim customers on the busy holiday weekend. Smith said he had never met a Muslim until he was approached by a group who asked if he could do custom slaughtering to provide halal meats to the Twin Cities.

"That was about five years ago. It took off from there," Smith said.

Other rural meat processors are doing the same, he said. It's been a win-win situation, for their Muslim customers and farmers and meat processors, who have a fast-growing market for goats and sheep.

Processing halal meat, which is now about 40% of Smith's business, has resulted in cross-cultural relationships and friendships along the way, he said.

"A lot of the people are doctors, engineers," said Smith. "There's a lot of good people. I think they look forward to coming and seeing us and I look forward to seeing them."

The two parties saw a lot of each other during Eid al-Adha, the busiest days of the year for Smith. It reflects the booming market for halal foods, estimated at $2 billion in the United States.

Growing demand

The folks coming in and out of Geneva Meats last weekend reflect the connections taking root. Rashed Ferdous greeted the Muslim men and boys walking through the doors. He held a list of names of nearly 100 people, the time they were to arrive, and the animal they would bring home.

Ferdous, a software engineer in the Twin Cities, recalled that when he moved to Minnesota 20 years ago, just a handful of places sold halal meats, such as the Holy Land Deli in Minneapolis. And most was imported from places such as Australia or New Zealand.

While working in Rochester, he began accompanying a co-worker every few months to pick out a goat or sheep at an area farm and then butcher it according to Islamic practices at a local meat processor. Ferdous was intrigued by this way of obtaining fresh halal meat, so he and his colleague launched Zabiha Fresh Meat.

The online business has become a wholesale supplier to grocers and restaurants across the Twin Cities, arranging individual butchering only for major holidays such as Eid al-Adha. Ferdous said it supplies about 75 animals a week.

In the process, he learned that urban Muslims and rural Minnesotans have a lot in common.

"There are similar values and lifestyles that you would experience in Muslim countries," said Ferdous, former president of the Islamic Resource Group, a Twin Cities Muslim educational nonprofit. "Things like strong family values, neighbors looking out for each other."

As the Muslim men waited their turn for butchering, Wayne Clark, a longtime lamb and goat dealer from southern Minnesota, pulled up in a truck with about 50 goats and a few lambs inside. Like Smith, Clark now calibrates much of his business to high-demand Muslim holidays and tracks them on his calendar.

Clark said he's built good relations with the Muslims he meets. Of the 60,000 goats and lambs he sells annually, about half are processed as halal meat.

"Fifteen years ago, we supplied probably zero goats," said Clark. "Last weekend, it was 275. It was our biggest ever."

Careful sacrifice

Islamic practices require that halal meat be slaughtered a certain way, and by a Muslim. A prayer is said before the kill, which must be done with one stroke of a sharp knife to the throat — without lifting the blade. Animal suffering should be avoided. The killing can't occur in the same production line where pigs are killed.

During Eid al-Adha, there are other rules. After the animal is butchered and packaged, a third of the meat must be given to charity, a third used for family and friends, and a third for the person who killed the animal, said Mohamed Omar of the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington.

In Mahood's case, he took home a box of the meat Sunday. Then he invited six families over for a tasty Indian meal of biryani with goat meat. Eid al-Adha is a time of celebration, he explained, and marks the end of Muslims' annual pilgrimages to Mecca.

Omar said that most Muslims in the Twin Cities aren't able to make the journey to rural Minnesota to kill their own goat or lamb. Back in Somalia, many men could just perform the ritual behind their houses, he said. But getting halal food for holidays and ordinary meals has come a long way, he said, as a growing number of stores stock halal-certified meat, including Walmart and Restaurant Depot.

Masood, who grew up in a large city in India, said the practice in his home was for men to hire a professional butcher, and with the help of neighbors, carry out the ritual on their verandas. It is meaningful regardless of what country it is in, he said.

"The lesson is, Abraham puts his faith in God, more than himself," said Masood. "It's a lesson we can all take today."